There's been a lot of talk in the news lately about guns. AR-15's have been getting attention again.
Back when I was a kid, it seemed like most of my dad's guns were old and brown, hand-me-downs from various acquaintances.
My brother Kole and I bought our first center-fire rifle when I was 16. We didn't exactly plan to. We ran our dog team to Ambler just to sell wolverine skins -- and came home with an assault rifle.
I sure wanted my own hunting rifle back then. We'd had plenty of run-ins with moose, and climbed a few trees when bears were around and watched wolverines run out of range. I wasn't happy rarely getting to borrow my dad's old Springfield 30-06 with the steel butt plate and baggy iron sights.
Somebody gave that Springfield to him years previous. Pete MacManus gave him military rounds for it and Mike Jones gave him old reloads. The brass was worn out on the reloads; the bullets were too loose. They slipped down into the neck of the cartridges and you had to bite them to pull the bullet back into place before you shoved in a round.
Kole and I had my .22 rifle in our sealskin scabbard on our sled, but I wanted something a little larger. At that time Mark Cleveland had a store down by the river in Ambler. Mark would order you a gun -- if you pointed one out in his big catalog, gave him the money and waited.
My dad suggested a Remington .243, but of course he needed to be the one to order it and he believed "waiting" to be a smart policy. "Let's just wait and see," he said. In other words, some year in the future we might order a gun. At that point Mark would have to get around to mailing in the order and then we'd wait more months for it to arrive -- sort of the great-grandfather to the background check.
Around that time, many local hunters switched to .223 caliber rifles. People liked the small bullets and the semi-autos for chasing caribou and wolves. The wooden-stocked Ruger Mini-14 became popular.
A school teacher in Ambler sold reloaded .223 ammo. He also sold guns -- black guns, made of aluminum and plastic and steel. He claimed the caliber was flat shooting, wasted less meat and was cheaper to shoot. Also, you could get old National Guard brass to reload; all you had to do was ream out the sealed primers. His guns used identical bullets to the Rugers but were more accurate rifles, he said, more reliable and didn't ice up.
There was the problem of aesthetics: His guns looked like war guns.
Somehow or other, after Kole and I sold two wolverine skins, we went to see the man. He blasted off some rounds -- very accurate shots -- then handed me the gun. I couldn't believe I was allowed to touch what looked like a machine gun. I didn't even know where to grab the pistol grip.
When I handed it back he put the butt of the stock in the middle of his forehead.
He squeezed the trigger. BOOM. "See? Very little recoil."
We stared and laughed nervously. I pictured the steel butt plate on the old Springfield. You didn't want that thing anywhere near your forehead. We were impressed, and impressed by the supposed accuracy of the assault rifle. We did something we never did -- we dug out our trapping money and bought it.
Mushing home I started getting nervous -- that gun looked like something from Vietnam compared to our homemade sled and towlines and caribou hide to kneel on and the dogs' hairy hind ends working away up in front. I was excited, though. How could I not be?
When we got home we chopped frozen fish for the dogs and then hurried up to the house. My dad wasn't impressed with our purchase. He didn't say much, but that scary looking black military weapon seemed strange leaning in the corner of our sod house. I got busy and sewed my sealskin scabbard so it covered all but the clip and black pistol grip protruding out the bottom.
It wasn't long until we understood that the new rifle was not a Colt AR but an ER-15 -- a different ordnance manufacturer -- and the most amazingly accurate gun we'd ever shot. Maybe it was the chrome bore, maybe that particular gun was made on a good day, or maybe it was all the time we'd spent learning on less accurate rifles. I don't know. I just know it was a crazy accurate weapon.
I could hit caribou in the head hundreds of yards away and sandhill cranes in the neck all the way across a pond, black bears back in the brush and all sorts of other meat and furs. For the next two decades I seldom traveled anywhere without that fabulous rifle.
Somewhere I heard that assault rifles were outlawed. But it seemed that people kept buying them; I never stopped seeing the black guns for sale. The discrepancy didn't make sense but I didn't ask questions.
Then my 30-round clips were stolen and I heard it was against the law to buy those clips too. I didn't like being robbed, but didn't miss the clips badly enough to seek out replacements. I made a clip that held only 10 rounds. I liked it better that way, lighter and less ammo to have on hand to potentially waste.
Eventually, I bought a used left-handed Mauser, a bolt action rifle with a wooden stock. And a rusty Remington .243 came my way. I carry it on my snowmachine when the trail is rough and in the boat when the spray is salty.
I don't remember the last time I fired my black gun. Over the years whenever someone has threatened to kill me, I've generally liked the idea of having it around but never needed to point it at anyone. When I think about anarchy -- society falling apart and everybody needing to find food -- I think about wanting an excellent .22.
I've long wondered how the U.S. government tracks guns -- in this land where so many of us give and trade and buy and sell rifles and pistols. I know when I buy or sell a used car I have to transfer the title to the new owner. I've never heard of anyone doing that with secondhand pistols and rifles. I have to admit, though, I like it that way -- avoiding fees and permits and paperwork.
Recently I read news reports describing the licensing and record-keeping on guns -- stating that a Honda is easier for law enforcement to keep track of than a Colt AR-15. That sounds about right when I think about how my guns have come to me. Also I found out the ban on assault rifles and large capacity clips was a temporary one. Like temporarily those things were dangerous?
It seems a little backwards, a little out of hand. As if gun owners are asking a bit too much. I like my assault rifle just fine and understand the thrill in gripping one, firing one. But if it would help a tiny amount toward keeping innocent kids and honest folks safer in our country, I'd give it up. Same if I had any drum clips or grenades. Or land mines. Of course I don't believe guns make people go crazy; I think TV and video games are far worse, but these are basically assault rifles after all.
An accurate hunting rifle was what my brother and I were after three decades ago in Ambler. That was more than we had, more than most of our forefathers ever had. We didn't need a black gun.
Seth Kantner is the author of "Shopping for Porcupine" and the bestselling novel "Ordinary Wolves." He lives in Northwest Alaska; email him at sethkantner.com. His column runs on the second Sunday of each month in the Daily News' Arts and Life section.